James Gracey’s recently published guide to Dario Argento, appropriately enough titled DARIO ARGENTO, is by the author’s own admission introductory in nature, and as such seems to be aimed primarily at readers who are unfamiliar with or new to the work of the director of such classics as SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED and TENEBRAE. I’m therefore inclined to feel that Argento neophytes will be the ones who’ll get the most out of it. However, that’s not to say there’s nothing on offer for the stalwarts…

The book follows a fairly conventional structure. It briefly introduces the director and his work, and then goes on to cover each of his films in chronological order, dividing them into a handful of broadly defined eras (the “animal trilogy”, the supernatural horror period of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, etc.) and highlighting recurrent themes and motifs. Gracey also offers his own judgement on each of the maestro’s eighteen feature films and various TV projects, although perhaps wisely he avoids fixating too much on on critiquing their merits (or, in some cases, lack thereof), thereby preventing the book from simply becoming an opinion piece. As a result, even films that he is not personally overly fond of, such as PHENOMENA and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, receive the same depth of analysis as a SUSPIRIA or a DEEP RED, resulting in a study that is commendably even-handed in its approach.

This is particularly appreciated with regard to Argento’s most recent film, the much-maligned GIALLO, which regardless of its flaws is surely as deserving of careful consideration as any of his other work… if not more so, given the torrent of vitriolic condemnation which has, to an extent, smothered the more moderate reactions. Gracey scores some major kudos by writing what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first serious printed analysis of GIALLO, and also takes the time to consider Argento projects that are often given short shrift or indeed ignored completely, such as his historical comedy THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN and his various forays into the world of television. True, the auteurist approach that runs through the book becomes rather tenuous when applied to director-for-hire projects like the two MASTERS OF HORROR TV episodes or the aforementioned GIALLO, but Gracey at least admits upfront that these are strictly speaking less Dario Argento films than films devised by others with Argento in mind.

When it comes to Argento’s earlier films, Gracey is on ground that has already been tread countless times, and as a result those who have read Alan Jones’ PROFONDO ARGENTO, Chris Gallant’s ART OF DARKNESS or indeed Maitland McDonagh’s recently republished BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS (the first serious study of Argento’s films), among others, are unlikely to find much information that they haven’t come across before. That said, Gracey deserves credit for collating all this information and condensing it into an approachable and comprehensible form: a lot of the same information is present in the various essays included in ART OF DARKNESS, but I personally know several people who found that tome, with its decidedly academic slant, somewhat inaccessible. Lest I give the wrong impression, though, that’s not to say that everything in this new book is simply recycled from earlier sources. Among other observations, Gracey makes some salient points about the recurring presence of blinds, drapes and curtains in Argento’s work, and also points out the parallels between the characters played by Karl Malden and James Franciscus in THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS and those played by Max von Sydow and Stefano Dionisi in SLEEPLESS, which seem obvious in retrospect but which had never occurred to me.

The text has a tendency to feel slightly disjointed at times, with random observations occasionally creeping in that have no apparent relation to the text surrounding them. There are also some fairly glaring typos (such as using “omit” rather than “emit”) that the proofreader really ought to have caught. It’s also unlikely to ultimately replace ART OF DARKNESS, PROFONDO ARGENTO or BROKEN MIRRORS/BROKEN MINDS as the “go to” books on Argento any time soon. That’s not simply because they have higher page counts and therefore contain more material - it’s because they have a clarity of purpose that Gracey’s book, to a certain extent, lacks. McDonagh and Gallant’s books both focus on in-depth academic analysis, while Jones’ tome is more of an exhaustive historical behind-the-scenes document. Gracey tries to do a little of both, and the final result, while assuredly an excellent introduction to Argento for those new to his films, might strike old hands as being a bit watered down. Still, it’s immensely readable: at a hair under 230 pages, it’s not a long book, and most readers will probably devour it in the space of a couple of sittings, but it’s enjoyable from cover to cover. Gracey clearly knows his stuff, and a love of all things Argento shines through on each page.